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“Planet of the Apes” and the Phenomenology of the Theatrical Film Experience

As a film scholar whose work examines the importance of technology to the way in which spectators experience the cinema and the world around them, it’s always something of a pleasure to see something actually in a theater. Part of it is the sociality of the space, seeing a film (whether a classic or a new release) with others who have made the effort and spent the money to see the same film you are and (hopefully) have some measure of investment in it. But an equally important part is the experience of the big screen itself. We in the world of academia refer to this study of the sensory and bodily appeal of cinema as phenomenology, that is, how we experience, often at the level of our bodies, the world around us.

While it can sometimes be difficult to experience older films in their original theatrical format, there has been a recent spate of re-releases by theater chains, including an ongoing partnership between Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately or me, they recently had a showing of Planet of the Apes (the one and only original), and I was more than pleased to be able to attend.

Now, Planet of the Apes has long been one of my absolute favourite films. As chilling and mind-bending as ever, I truly enjoyed watching it on the big screen and this experience convinced me, once and for all, that sometimes yes, it is indeed better to see the film in an actual theater rather than relying on seeing it on TV (yes, even if you’re lucky enough to have an HDTV). There is just something about seeing it in a multiplex that forms a link between me, sitting in the theater in the present day, with those who would have seen it when it was originally produced and even, terrifyingly enough, with the hero Taylor as he struggles to make sense of this baffling world in which apes are the intelligent form of life while humans struggle at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.

Industrially, it’s important to remember that these films of the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray era were especially designed to be seen on the big screen. (Geoff King has a fascinating discussion on this very issue, if you’re interested in reading about it further). Seeing things on a larger scale allows not only for a greater amount of scrutiny of the formal composition of the screen space, but also a greater sense of immersion in this profoundly unsettling and challenging world. And for a film like Apes, this immersion can prove to be profoundly unsettling at a deeply primal, psychological level.

Seeing it in a larger format also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the formal complexity of this film. From the perpetually unsettling score (one of the finest ever produced for a feature film, IMO), to the way in which the onscreen space is often organized around blocks and and obstructions that separate Taylor from those who inhabit this world, the diegetic space mirrors his own fractured consciousness and invites us to inhabit it as well. Further, there are some particularly brilliant moments when we see Taylor/Heston’s countenance brought into close-up, even as he reflects on (and is forced to acknowledge) his own smallness in the vastness of space and in the world that no longer truly has a place for him. The human, in the film’s imagination, is both centered and decentered.

Furthermore, the film makes some truly (a mark, no doubt, of the films production after the advent of the New Hollywood, which posed significant challenges to the earlier conventions of Hollywood style). There is a lot of very jumpy camera movement, as well as a few key scenes (such as Taylor’s attempted escape from Ape City), where the camera actually turns the world upside down. It’s not necessarily a subtle bit of cinematography, but it is effective. Coupled with the disturbing film score–which often mimics the sounds of the apes–it really does serve to disorient us as viewers and make us reflect on how fragile and precarious our own superiority truly is.

All in all, this was truly a tremendous cinematic experience, and I’m glad I took the time to do it. The hilarious interview between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and “Dr. Zaius” was a fond, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the film’s most notorious, sanctimonious villain. It was certainly one of the most absurdly bizarre (in a good way) interview that I have seen on Turner Classic movies. While I enjoyed it, I do wonder what was in the minds of the producers when they decided on that particular avenue. Still, the definite queer edge made it a little extra special for me (as you know, I’m always on the lookout for the queer side of things).

So, if you have the chance to see a classic Hollywood film in theaters, do it. You won’t regret it.

Five Things to Do Before Watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Now that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is almost ready to hit theaters, it’s time for all Apes fans and newbies to start preparing for the movie of the year.  Though one can certainly go into this film cold, I would recommend enjoying many of the other films and novels that comprise this venerable franchise.

1.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Novel

Whether you’re new to the franchise or an experienced Apes veteran, you should definitely take a look at the novel that started it all.  Though substantially different in tone and plot than its subsequent adaptations, Pierre Boulle’s novel is nevertheless a masterpiece and classic of science fiction and well worth the read.

2.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Films

If you haven’t seen the original entries in the franchise, you should absolutely do so before the release of Dawn.  Though the first in the original five films is by far the best, the others have their virtues as well, despite declining budgets and box office returns.  The fifth and final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, has a great deal in common with the upcoming Dawn, and it will be interesting to compare how the two films respond to the different cultural and social pressures of their moments of production.

3.)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When it was released in 2011, very few thought that this film was going to be anything close to a success.  With the bitter taste of Tim Burton’s unfortunate remake still lingering ten years later, it was with unalloyed joy that many Apes fans greeted this thoughtful and intellectually challenging reboot.  Far from relying on trick endings (as Burton’s remake did), this film, like its venerable predecessors, asked some tough questions about the nature of sentience and the complex and fraught relationship between humans and their closest living relatives.

4.)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm

Normally, I am not a fan of media tie-ins, largely because they are often full of bad writing and execrable plotting.  It was with some surprise, therefore, that I read Greg Keyes novel, which chronicles the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s successful rebellion.  The plotting is deftly and concisely wove and the writing is at times profound.  It takes a special kind of talent to create ape characters who can be both similar and yet utterly alien to human sensibilities, and Keyes does this admirably with Koba, the tortured bonobo.  Like the two films it straddles, this novel forces its human readers to evaluate their own complicity in the oppression of nonhuman animals.

5.)  Quarantine, All Fall Down, and Story of the Gun

These three short films provide a window into the world that emerges after the Simian Flu begins to take its toll.  I have to admit that I was somewhat wary going in, but I was blown away by both the quality and the emotional depth of these short films.  Each of them has their own shining moments, but I was particularly struck by the ghostly presence of the apes that haunts the second and third films, in the forms of a pair of ghostly eyes/a footprint and the sound of screaming chimps/a silhouette, respectively.  Story of the Gun is especially moving, as it shows, in the ownership history of one gun, the gradual decline and collapse of human civilization as we know it and in the process shows just how fragile and illusory are the bonds that stand between us and anarchy.

And if you have time…

Planet of the Apes on Television

Believe it or not, there were not one but two Planet of the Apes television series, one a live-action drama that takes place centuries before the events of the original film and the other an animated children’s series that features a much more advanced civilization of apes.  While somewhat spotty in quality, they are still worth seeing as they help provide an even more in-depth look into the sprawling mythos that has emerged around the idea of apes becoming the dominant species on planet Earth.

(We’ll just try to collectively forget about the unfortunate 2001 remake, though it too has spawned its own mythos-in-miniature).